A few years ago it seemed like all the hottest new products were tools for self-soothing. Fidget spinners, weighted blankets, adult coloring books, DIY slime, vapes — these are things you use when you want to feel less anxious, or when you want to feel nothing.
The anxiety economy has exploded since then: From 2012 to 2017, meditation became the fastest-growing wellness trend in the US, and the most popular video game of the last year involved living on a peaceful island where nothing bad ever happens. In a trend story on the drug ketamine, which offers users a zonked-out zen, The Cut described it as “instead of fueling anxiety and heated close-talk, it makes you feel like you’re giving your brain a bath in a pool of warm macaroni.”
The thing is, I don’t need a drug to do that, because I have TikTok. It quickly became obvious to me when I joined in 2018 that TikTok would become a very big deal. It wasn’t because I knew anything about the business model or had any real insight into what, specifically, makes a successful social media platform (who does, really?). It was because I would open the app and suddenly four hours would pass and I’d have no idea how.
TikTok is, to my knowledge, the only major social platform that has had to build in a function to tell you to log off of it if you’ve been scrolling for more than an hour — and of course, everyone hates said function. You open TikTok and it knows exactly what your eyeballs want to look at most, to the point where people joke that their For You page knows more about them than they do.
This has mostly made my life better, or at least more entertaining. But at a certain point, it begins to feel ever so slightly like the central object of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, a video so captivating you no longer have any desire to do anything besides watching it until you slowly lose your mind.
Whenever I want to feel and think nothing, which is a lot of the time, I go on TikTok. I’ve tried to use this as a force for good: I’ve started scrolling TikTok while on the treadmill so that I’m less focused on the agony of being on a treadmill, even though I’m doing an exercise routine I learned from, of course, TikTok. I’ve had to instill screen time rules in a way I never have with any other platform: I no longer allow myself to scroll at night in bed, when simply opening the app could destroy my sleep cycle for a week.
TikTok is the kind of mental pacifier that people pay good money for: an hour in a sensory deprivation tank can go for a hundred bucks, and now that psychedelics have been commercialized as avant-garde wellness products, we’re hurtling towards a future in which you can “book a stay at a ketamine resort in Colorado or weed hotel in Arizona for your next family trip.”
In a story for the New York Times magazine about the pursuit of nothingness, Kyle Chayka writes that “No one seems to want anything; there is no enthusiasm for desire in this culture, only the wish that we could give it up. It’s an almost Buddhist rush toward selflessness with the addition of American competition and our habit of overdose: as much obliteration as possible.”
A common instinct I have when writing about internet trends is to assure readers that whatever thing is in the news that week about What Your Child Is Doing Online just isn’t that deep. This — the desire to dissociate, to suppress all knowledge and emotion and sensation — feels like the opposite, though. This feels like the genre of viral tweet that’s like, “I didn’t come here to work, I was put on this earth to eat berries and play in the ocean.” It feels like a response to simply containing too much: too much information, too much stimulation, too many feelings. It feels like a loud, honking alarm that signals something is very wrong with the way we spend our time and derive meaning, and it makes me want to log off forever and go for a walk in the woods.
“Go touch some grass” is a common retort when someone accidentally exposes how internet-poisoned their brain has become, but it is also just good advice for everyone. The irony is that the way I’ve chosen to dissociate, by scrolling TikTok, only exacerbates the problem: I’m still staring at a screen. Which is fine, for the most part.
I don’t think moral panics over “screen time” are all that warranted, but it does sort of start to feel like we’re an adult generation of iPad babies, gripping our little screens with our mysteriously goop-stained fingers and wobbling around the world. And you weren’t meant to do that. You were meant to eat berries and play in the ocean.
This column first published in The Goods newsletter. Sign up here so you don’t miss the next one, plus get newsletter exclusives.